Galapagos tortoises are the most recognizable icon of the sleepy archipelago in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Known for their massive size and long lifespan, they slowly wander the volcanic island chain looking for their next meal.
Discovered in the 16th century, the 250,000-strong Galapagos tortoises had no natural predators and flourished throughout the islands. The slow-moving, grass-eating vertebrates became an accessible food source for the newly established locals on the island chain. The past 300 years have seen a rapid decline of Galapagos tortoises to a low of only 3,000 in the 1970s. Today, the 19,000+ remaining tortoises are considered a threatened species — the Darwin Research Foundation is leading conservation efforts with help from the international community to give these gentle giants a fighting chance.
Sadly, the conservation efforts were unable to find a mate for the last-known Pinta tortoise. The extinction of the species happened in 2012 when Lonesome George unexpectedly died. He is on display at the Darwin Research Station for all to see.
Santa Cruz Island has a fantastic attraction not far from Puerto Ayora where you can visit a gathering of dozens (maybe hundreds) of huge tortoises in their natural habitat. Rancho Primicias (Giant Tortoise Reserve) is a sprawling private ranch that is a haven for the prehistoric inhabitants to graze on grass and do tortoise things.